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Alvin invites you to listen to this playlist
while you view his exhibition

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Curated by Alvin Smith


This collection represents a struggle. It highlights the inner city plight of Black people. Inside a dilapidated classroom, along neighborhood sidewalks, in the midst of a church cookout or a liquor store parking lot, I try to lay bare the ugliness surrounding these underprivileged communities while I recognize and highlight the joys that happen there too.

These artworks are a way for me to share my lived experiences. The individual snapshots of life that I paint, I've been detached from for thirty years as an incarcerated artist. This collection was born from my personal longings for familiarity and for the only community I've ever known.

Almost two decades ago, I began creating these scenes as a way of seeing myself still in my community. This process allowed me to see my own role in the degradation of my community — there have been times where I wanted to look away, even from the painting. I also started seeing the injustices inflicted upon underprivileged communities. The one common denominator has always been the watering holes, "the liquor stores," where this collection got its name. Just as an oasis in the desert positively affects everything in its vicinity, the underprivileged oasis — liquor stores —  negatively affects its surroundings. We allow schools to close, police to act with impunity, and liquor stores to proliferate. I ask you to look closer and see value in these communities.



Acrylic on unstretched canvas
29 1/4" x 25"

On the side of the rusted out trashcan there is the phrase "Rip G.F. & B.T." This is in reference to George Floyd, and Briana Taylor. Why put them on a rusted out trash receptacle, one might ask. It's because my heart felt, and still feels, that those two beautiful souls were thrown away by a system that professes to "protect and serve" them. So, yes, the truth in my eyes is just as ugly as that old rusted out dumpster because those lives are nonrefundable. Neither is the countless hours spent searching for the bottom of liquor bottles, and hanging around the neighborhood watering holes.


Acrylic on unstretched canvas
19" x 27 5/8"

This piece is reflective of that part of the system which is broken, yet asks those harmed by it to "have faith" in it. I do not believe that all cops are bad — still, some are — which is some too many! The reality is that the people who live in underprivileged communities mostly see cops in the way I’ve depicted, as a source of deception.


Acrylic on unstretched canvas
34" x 35 1/4"

When I think about the Plessy vs Ferguson case, which ushered in "separate but equal," it pains me and causes me to question: what must an entire people have experienced in order for adults, as well as the youth, to see themselves as inferior to someone else? This piece is a view into my own answers as a child to the questions written on the chalkboard. At the time what I understood of white people was that things were better for them. And my answers were reflective of my desire for better. But instead of getting better treatment, I got labeled as someone suffering from an identity crisis.


Acrylic on unstretched canvas
22 3/4" x 27 1/4"

This piece speaks of one of the many ripple effects of the underprivileged oasis — how many Black women from these communities either do not, or can not, receive proper prenatal care. Each of the ultrasound photos were real ultrasound photos lent to me by fellow prisoners.

This piece also tells a personal story. Recently I found out that my only child, my adult daughter, isn't biologically mine. My mind went back to a few years after the birth of my daughter, when I agreed with my daughter's mother on an abortion of a second pregnancy. In light of the recent discovery about my daughter I wondered if I squandered the chance to have an offspring of my own. But like Tupac said, "Since a man can't make one, he has no right to tell a woman when or where to create one." Choices, to whom do they belong?


Acrylic on unstretched canvas
25" x 38 3/4"

This piece is indicative of the choices we are sometimes faced with; how what we decide impacts others around us. And how, in most cases, there are ample motivations for better choices. Consider a person who sells illegal drugs on the street. Everyday encounters with both living and inanimate objects can serve as guideposts. Take for instance, the stop sign in this composition — the damage of the sign makes it prevalent. It may go unnoticed by many, but to the person who's thinking he/she should "stop" dealing drugs it could be a source of confirmation. Next thing you know, your eye finds the word "STOP" somewhere else in the piece. What in your own life might you need to STOP? Personally, I did not take heed to these guideposts. So I recognize them now from a position of consequence.


Acrylic on unstretched canvas
29 1/4" x 39 7/8"

This piece speaks to how the youth aspire to be what they see. By and large, we misguide them through our action: Shady deals done by lowering and lifting a bucket back at the old house, dice games right out on the corner, guys who the youth look up to chasing after many different women, a church and liquor store sharing the same parking lot. This list could go on in perpetuity. We tend to point the finger at video games when our youth engage in gun violence. But video games ain't the example they've witnessed in real time. No, it is us that they are emulating, the American OG's.


Acrylic on unstretched canvas
28" x 28 1/4"

Once again, I'm transmitted to the urban oasis - the liquor store - which I perceive as The Underprivileged Oasis. Notice how each character depicted within the composition of this piece seems to feel justified in the role he, she, or they are playing here. Go deeper still, and observe how the soapbox preacher and the NOI (Nation of Islam) representative both occupy the fringes of the scene. Judging by the way that not a single character is looking in their direction hints at the woeful ineffectiveness of their outreach attempts. In order to be effective, those who wish to have an impact in these communities must move away from the fringes and immerse themselves into the shadows — the culture — in order to have any success at all.


Acrylic on unstretched canvas
28 3/4" x 29 1/2"

It would be a huge mistake to assume that only bad or illegal things happen at the community liquor store. You can also find a sense of community there too. Honestly, I believe that these urban "watering holes" do a great deal of harm to the community. But when Sister Johnson's family needs help making rent, it's never the big box stores who come to the aid. These are the spaces that allow out of towners to sleep overnight in motorhomes and eighteen wheelers. I left the Walmart parking lot bare because I wanted to convey a sense of it being void of community.

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The creative process of an artist in the joint is challenging to say the least. The process for ordering supplies is an arduous journey all its own, with inflated prices and spending limits set by the prison commissary. Then there's the fact that the cells (rooms) are only nine feet by six feet. With furnishings there's barely room to breathe, much less feed your creative cravings.

I work in the common area. There's always a crowd surrounding the table. I'm always creating current event pieces. So the crowd is my own way of testing to see if my work will spark conversations. Once satisfied, I slip back inside my jazz-emitting headphones, racing for the finish line, already thinking of the next piece.

Art has been an escape for me since childhood. If I couldn't go outside, if I wasn't feeling well, if mom and dad were yelling out their own frustrations. Even when I was happy, I turned to art. Over these nearly thirty years of incarceration I've honed my skill by escaping into the art. I'm transported to the places I create regardless of what's going on around me. I just need to paint! That's why I'm so thankful for it.


Empowerment Avenue personnel:  Emily Nonko, Writing for Liberation Director; Christine Lashaw, Visual Arts for Liberation Director; De’jon Joy, Assistant Director; Rahsaan "New York" Thomas, Executive Director; and the whole Empowerment Avenue community.

Steven Smith: Owner, operator of MUSE Gallery, Grand Rapids Michigan.

Cynthia Damron: Artwork supervisor, and personal assistant of artist Alvin Smith.

Lorenzo "Rico" Bradshaw: Public affairs.

The Brechting Family: Phil, Emily, Tierney, Ryland, Leighton, and Paxton.

— Alvin Smith
To view Alvin's bio, statement, and portfolio, click here.
To send a message to Alvin, click here.